What is Grief?

“What is Grief?” I asked her.

She said, “that might be something good for your blog.”

I’m still not really sure what grief means, so I took her advice.

The she I’m referencing is a UCSF Psycho-Oncologist. She works full-time as a psychologist for people with advanced cancer. Like everyone else with potentially terminally ill patients I’m flabbergasted at the specialization they have chosen. The daily immediacy they have to such sadness. And I’m awed by their superhero nature of running first to where the chances are the worst.

This was my first time meeting with any type of mental therapist since before I got my diagnosis. I just couldn’t bear restarting with my old therapist where we discussed relative trivialities such as my upbringing’s affect on my happiness or the how can I divide my psychic energy between work and home.

Today we discussed how I was managing my stage 4 cancer of unknown primary and a diagnosis that there is no cure (yet, thank you very much). I feel I had been managing it relatively well by having been transparent with everyone from almost the very beginning, even though talking about it makes me cry, as does many other “triggers” such as pictures of kids and dads or some other premature end-of-life thoughts. But do know I fully believe that I am going to live and fight long enough for science to catch up to me, and to both identify and to kill this cancinoma I have.

I had thought that this appointment would lead to me being prescribed some anti-depresenant so I would feel the down sides less. For the most part every health provider I’ve met with has wanted to reduce my pain, and normalize my life. Since day 1 I’ve been taking Lorazapam (a benzodiazepine for anxiety reduction) at bed times or as needed and I’m also on Mirtazapine (an appetite stimulant with a side-effect of anti-depression which is fine with me.)

So I wasn’t expecting Dr. Shumay, the Psycho-Oncologist, to say she was going to report that I was suffering from grief. No doubt I’m full of grief. The horror of potentially abandoning my wife and daughter can feel unbounded at times, many times, actually, but definitely not all the time - in fact not nearly as much as one would expect considering. So I agreed with her, and it was just as fine with me to not be on one more drug, most likely a drug that would tamper my emotional highs that come on a daily basis at home and with friends, so as to feel less of the sadness and despair

Yet, when I try and consider what the feeling grief means, all that’s coming to mind is Lucy yelling “Good Grief, Charlie Brown.”

Seriously, of course I know what grief means. It means feeling something like frustration, or rather something like exhaustion. Actually it means a combination of helplessness and despair. Well actually, it also contains a strong component of shame. Actually — seriously — frankly — I’m really not sure what grief means.

But I feel it and I know it. I sure do.


Update July 25th: There have been some very helpful discussions of grief in the comments, but my sister Susan, the pediatric oncologist succinctly nailed it on the head in an email reply. She wrote:

Ted, you are grieving for the life path you once had, but which has taken a horrible unexpected swerve.

It’s exactly that loss of my life plan, which I had come to expect with such certaity, that makes me grieve so much.


[A reminder that doesn’t need to be said, is my exact health status is nothing my daughter needs to know now about so please never discuss it with her or anyone that speaks with her (eg your kids). I know I have your confidence but, the thought of her knowing more than she needs to is more grief than I can bear.]